Sunflower Sprouts Fresh Stores and Consumers

Mike Gilliland, Wild Oats' founder, has big plans for his fast-growing Sunflower Farmers Market

Page Morgan-Draper still shops at her local Albuquerque Whole Foods (WFMI). But, says the mother of two: "We're not made of money." That's one of the reasons she stops at a Sunflower Farmers Market on her way home from work three days a week. The fast-growing chain of grocery stores in five Western and Southwestern states specializes in produce, much of it organic, bought directly from farmers and sold at almost Wal-Mart (WMT) like prices—two pounds of organic broccoli for $3 and 99¢ for a pound of apples, to quote recent specials at Morgan-Draper's local store.

With its "Serious Food, Silly Prices" tag line, Sunflower targets consumers like Morgan-Draper who want to eat healthy, natural foods, but can't afford—or don't want to pay—gourmet prices. As Sunflower CEO and co-founder Mike Gilliland puts it: "We're a cost-conscious Whole Foods."

But Gilliland wants to do more than just pick off that high-end grocery's belt-tightening shoppers. His prices, and the weekly Sunflower sales advertised in the newspaper beside the local supermarket ads, are an attempt to lure consumers at the middle-to-low end of the market. The potential genius of Sunflower is its appeal to consumers at both ends of a market that's increasingly split between low-cost big-box stores and wholesale clubs on one end, and high-end retailers at the other.

Growing His Second Chain

It's an innovative strategy that's easier said than done. The relative newcomer is virtually surrounded by highly aggressive competitors, from Whole Foods to the increasingly organic Wal-Mart and its recent small-format spin-off, Wal-Mart Marketplace, itself launched in response to British brand Tesco's U.S. effort, Fresh and Easy.

But higher food prices—up 5% nationally between April, 2007 and April, 2008, according to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics—could give Sunflower a boost, as even middle class consumers become more price-conscious. And Sunflower's emphasis on organic produce, much of it grown locally, should appeal to the consumers that spent a total of $1 billion at farmers markets in 2006. Buoyed by these trends—and by a $30 million investment by private equity firm PCG Capital Partners in December, 2007—Sunflower is in the midst of a rapid expansion, growing from its current 14 stores to some 21 locations by the end of 2008. Fifty stores are planned for five years from now.

Sunflower is almost a déjà vu for Gilliland, who founded Wild Oats with his wife, Libby Cook, in 1987. "Back then, most people couldn't spell 'tofu,'" says the natural-foods pioneer. Despite some missteps as a first-time entrepreneur, he built Wild Oats into a $2.2 billion company before stepping down as CEO in 2001. (The more successful Whole Foods bought Wild Oats in 2007 for $565 million.) He launched Sunflower in 2002.

Pricing, Pricing, Pricing

There's a reason Gilliland thinks Sunflower will do well against his longstanding rival. The company's farmers-market format is based on a California chain called Henry's Market, one of the many companies Gilliland had acquired when he was Wild Oats CEO. As his company and Whole Foods expanded, he increasingly found his stores under pressure. "A Whole Foods would open nearby and the typical Wild Oats would lose 30% to 40% of its business overnight," he says.

But stores based on the Henry's Market format competed well because they were less intimidating to the casual natural-foods shopper and appealed to the demographic that didn't want to pay for the glitz of a natural-foods superstore.

Pricing is key to Sunflower's strategy and its drive to undersell Wal-Mart. Gilliland claims that at least 80% of the store's produce beats the giant's prices. He and his team have been rethinking myriad aspects of their business, trying to "squeeze pennies out of everything," he says. Sunflower buys its produce by the truckload directly from farmers; local trucking is done by Sunflower staff, using company vehicles. Construction, too, is managed in-house by Gilliland's brother, who outsources some jobs to skilled workers. This allows Sunflower to build a new store for less than $2 million, or $70 a square foot, compared to the $150-per-square-foot industry average for a new supermarket.

In terms of design, the stores are no-frills. "They're nice stores, but not works of art," says Gilliland. "Whole Foods is like a museum!" Of course, it's "silly prices," not sleek design, that he's going for.

A natural surge?

At least in the short run, analysts aren't convinced that Sunflower's market-bridging strategy will succeed, especially when it comes to wooing low-end consumers. "Let's get real," says David Livingston of DJL Research. "[Sunflower] simply does not have the economies of scale in terms of labor, rent, and purchasing power [to beat Wal-Mart]." Apart from produce, Sunflower's prices are higher than the giant's, although they're competitive. While consumers who are tired of the big-box shopping experience may be willing to pay a bit more at a friendly, smaller-format store, it's far from certain they will.

Considering the other ends of the market, Paul Weitzel, a managing partner at Willard Bishop, says: "I don't think people who shop organic are as price sensitive as some." But with the economy tightening, more consumers are going to focus on value.

It's too early to call Sunflower a resounding success, but its strategy seems to be working. Same store year-over-year sales are up by double digits, according to Gilliland. Looking forward, the company will benefit from consumers' continued focus on fresh produce and on healthy foods. According to Progressive Grocer's 2008 Annual Report on the industry, retailers expect produce to be the most-shopped food category this year, followed by private-label products—double good news for Sunflower.

"We expect a surge over the next five years as naturals go from niche to mainstream," says Willard Bishop's Weitzel. "Sunflower will be well-positioned for that."

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